Saturday, June 30, 2012
CSFD listing - [CZ-orig, ENG-trans]
Protektor [CSFD, Eng-Trans] directed by Marek Najbrt [CSFD, Eng-Trans], screenplay by Robert Geisler [CSFD, Eng-Trans], Benjamin Tucek and Marek Najbrt [CSFD, Eng-Trans], winner of 8 Czech Lions [Eng-Trans] (the Czech equivalent of the American Academy Awards) played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago as part of the 2012 New Czech Films Tour organized by the Czech Film Center and the Czech Consulates in Chicago and New York. (The tour promises to visit 8 major cities in the United States including New York, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Washington D.C. and Seattle).
The current film is about the traumatic "Protectorate" era of Czech history, that is, about the years of Nazi occupation of the country from 1938/39-1945. Now foreign occupation would always be traumatic. However, the specific circumstances of the Nazi occupation of the Czech part of Czechoslovakia were sufficiently unique to make the experience its own particular Hell. I also know something of that particular Hell because both my parents, who were born in Prague in the early 1930s, lived through it.
"Some background" ... The first and most important thing to know in regards to the Nazi destruction and occupation of Czechoslovakia, is the Nazis actually took-over the country without a fight and then in two stages in the year leading-up to the formal outbreak of World War II. Now how does one lose one's country without a fight and in two excruciating stages?
Well, in the first stage, Hitler brought Europe the edge of war over the majority ethnic German "frontier" (Sudeten) sections of Czechoslovakia. Desperate to avoid war, the French and the British signed away those sections of Czechoslovakia (without Czechoslovakian participation in the negotiations...) to Nazi Germany in the notorious 1938 Munich Pact. Horrified that if it refused the demands of the major European powers, Czechoslovakia would actually be blamed for plunging Europe into the Second World War and knowing that without the assistance of France/England there was almost no chance of winning such a war, the Czechoslovakian government acceded to the European powers' demands knowing well that the rest of the country would become totally at the mercy of the Nazi regime. Five months later, summoned to Berlin one evening and threatened with the annihilation of the Czech capital Prague at dawn, the elderly and by then nominal Czechoslovakian president Hacha once again acceded the Nazis' demands to march-in and take the rest of the country. The Slovakian part was split-off and made into a a puppet state. The Czech part was directly occupied, but since "occupation" sounds so Evil, the Nazis declared it to be a "Protectorate" instead: "The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia"). The era of this Nazi "Protectorate" began what became a 50 year period where the Czechs repeatedly found themselves having to bend to the will of two great powers, first to that of Nazi Germany to the North and West and then to that of Soviet Russia to the East. And yes, it was a truly awful time.
So how does a people survive such fundamental assaults on its dignity? Not easily. The celebrated Czech response was that of bending to the immediate demands of the "powers that be" in hopes of preserving at least some internal dignity by never actually conceding completely. It was, in effect, a game of "moving the goal posts," if always backwards, but at least "extending the game." And though the Czechs would not necessarily be known as the most church going of peoples, most Czechs would understand and _many_ would actually use the language of the Gospels to explain the reasoning ... "Render onto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's ..." [Mk 12:13-17].
This approach, whether organized (in as much as "competent oppositional authority" could exist either in exile as it did during the Nazi era or inside the country as it became organized under the banner of Charter 77 during the latter stages of the Communist era) or unorganized in the form of ad hoc opposition by the general populace to its oppressors, was, of course, enormously ambiguous.
On the "positive" side, the occupiers found that they could _never_ really count on the Czechs. And there are truly countless examples big and small of how the Czechs played/defied/ignored their occupiers during both the Nazi and Soviet eras. During the Soviet era, Czechoslovakia came to be famously called by truly everybody (and often derisively by everybody) a "nation of radishes" (red on the outside, white on the inside). And the current film actually begins with a quote by Adolf Hitler: "The Czechs may give the appearance of having their backs bent, but that's only because they're still pedaling." Indeed, while the Nazis did take their country without a fight, the Czechs did, in turn, take down (assassinate) by far the highest ranking member of the Nazi regime to die during the entire Second World War, the Nazis' #3 man Reinhard Heydrich (who was serving then as the Czechs' "Reichsprotector," hence the Czechs' enemy #1). And remarkably, the Czech paratroopers who were dropped into the country from the Czechoslovak government in exile in England to knock him off _got just him_. No one else was even wounded in the assassination. The Nazi reprisals that followed were characteristically appalling (the entire village of Lidice was destroyed, the men executed, the women deported to concentration camps, the children sent to "the Reich" to be adopted by German families). But the Czechs themselves, "just got their man."
On the other more negative side of the coin, this national survival strategy produced a nation of half-collaborators where everyone was at least "partly wet" (namočený) and there were very few true heroes (though would-be heroes tended to have very short public lives / life-expectancies...)
So then, this history forms the context of the movie. And the challenge that it seeks to meet is finding a way to talk honestly of that era, which was both horribly traumatic and one in which almost no one but a few of the dead could be honestly portrayed in heroic terms. How do the film-makers do here? Well you decide...
The film begins in the summer of 1938. Prague, the capital, is portrayed as the Czechs like to remember it -- a vibrant, multicultural city, full of life, at the cutting edge of its time -- the Paris of Central Europe. In this city of Prague in the late 1930s live the two principal protagonists of the story: Hana Vrbatová (played by Jana Plodková [CSFD][Eng-Trans]), Jewish, is a young rising star in the Czech film industry of its time and her husband, Emil Vrbata (played by Marek Daniel [CSFD][Eng-Trans]) who is a junior producer working for the news division Czechoslovak Radio.
At the beginning of the story, it's Hana's star that's rising faster than Emil's and he feels rather threatened whenever he visits the studio and has to interact with Hana's studio coworkers and friends. Indeed, Hana's older co-star Fantl (played by Jiři Ornest [CSFD][Eng-Trans]), also Jewish, tries to warn Hana that the curtain for "people like them" is about to fall and _to join him_ in getting out of the country while she still can. Naive, and wishing to be loyal to her husband, she chooses to stay.
Emil too, sees indications that the curtain is falling. He was sent, after all, by Czechoslovak radio to the frontier to cover the Nazi occupation of the Czech borderlands (Sudetenland) at the end of the Sudeten crisis. Franta (played by Martin Myšička [CSFD][Eng-Trans]) the radio news broadcaster for whom Emil works is very blunt about significance of the loss of the frontier. Still, Emil does not really comprehend.
Six months later, the Nazis roll into Prague to take over the rest of the country. With the Nazi occupation, Hana's career is, of course, over. Indeed, within a few months, as a Jew, she can't even enter into a movie theater anymore. Indeed, as the movie notes, within a few months, the only public spaces that Jews are allowed to congregate in Prague are in its (Jewish) cemeteries. What now?
Well, Emil actually gets promoted. The radio personality, Franta, who had been a Czech patriot and simply could not "adapt" (to parrot the Nazi occupiers' line), is fired (and shortly thereafter arrested ...). The new, _German_ director of the formerly Czechoslovak broadcast service (played by Matthias Brandt), who presents himself to the Czechs that he is now supervising as a National Socialist (a member of the Nazi party), actually chooses Emil to replace Franta. Why? Well, when he meets with Emil privately he tells him: "You have a Jewish wife, don't you?" That is, the new Director knows that he can control Emil: So long as Emil toes the line, Emil's wife Hana would be "safe" (assuming, of course, that Hana herself "would know her place" -- basically never be seen).
So Emil's career now arguably skyrockets, while Hana is forced to become ever more "invisible" while being forced to be grateful to her husband for "Protecting" her. How long, honestly, can that last?
The rest of the movie follows. The film becomes an exploration of a radically unequal relationship that can be understood on multiple levels. And in the crucible of Nazi occupation, of course, there is very little room for error.